In the 1840s there were riots about what version of the Bible should be used in schools, People died over it. As street violence and armed factions again become more common it’s worth reflecting on a few things, including how often social strife traces to issues about schools.
Part of the impetus for the Bible riot in Philadelphia was disagreement about what version of the Bible students should read, and also the false claim that Catholics were seeking to remove the Bible from school.
Actual pedagogical and curricular questions and wild claims. Sound familiar?
In the Philadelphia Bible Riots in the summer of 1844, at least 20 people were killed. So that’s a lot more serious than some arrests for disorderly conduct at a local school board meeting. But we might pay attention to the pattern and remember that things can get out of hand. We might also ask if, in a liberal society, choice is the way out?
After enough persecution Catholics established their own schools, an institution that persists to this day. Whether students could be compelled to attend only public schools as well as how public money could, and could not, subsidize these schools fueled a string of Supreme Court cases. From Pierce in 1925, various entanglement cases in the last third of the 20th Century, Zelman at the dawn of the 21st, and now a Maine case the court just last week agreed to hear.
Today we hear that choice might be the way around the whole “CRT” debate. That seems underpowered to me – living in society means collectively agreeing on at least some things however unsatisfying that might be. And there is a difference between say choice among a school that focuses on arts and one that focuses on STEM, or various charters, or whatever, and wildly different takes on American history or values or government. One of those is a shrug, your kid likes STEM, mine is into theater, whatever. One of those is the kind of issue societies have to wrestle with and where we usually muddle through, however imperfectly.
Chris Stewart is fond of saying choice is cleansing in the sense that you can see where the haters are if they open a school down the street. I’d argue this is one of those things people say, and if you’re Chris it gets you a good laugh, but most of us would freak out if it were put into practice. I know I’m not good with a taxpayer funded school like that down the street, would fight it, and in general I’m a do whatever you want type. Societies have to draw lines even if those lines are around broad issues and do accommodate a fair degree of choice – you just can’t totally outrun it.
So we’re left with the unsatisfying reality that this sort of thing can spiral from politics to much worse, we have to work it out, and these issues have been with us from the start. Enjoy your week!
While you’re here, this essay with a few thinkers from across the spectrum arguing why these CRT bans are basically speech codes and a bad idea is useful – the opportunistic political gold rush here is not helpful. Robert Pondiscio wrote about why he doesn’t think we can choice our way out of this either.